Fort Jefferson

When we go back to Key West with Kayla some uncertain time in the future, one of the places I want to revisit is Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas National Park.


 As this 1994 map from the University of Texas Library’s web site shows, the Dry Tortugas consist of a group of seven islands, with surrounding waters, that lie about 70 miles away from Key West.  The Dry Tortugas were named by Ponce De Leon, because, when he first saw the islands, they were covered with turtles.  Tortuga is Spanish for turtle.  However, after he had his men explore the  seven keys that make up the Dry Tortugas, he also discovered that they had no groundwater, so he called them the “Dry” Tortugas.  (Actually, he probably called them Las Secas Tortugas, since “seco”, I think, is the Spanish word for dry, but in the wonderful way that happens with place names, someone decided to split the difference and make the first word English and the last Spanish.  “Dry Turtles” doesn’t exactly recommend itself as a name, does it? )

Mark and I at the entrance to Fort Jefferson

 The largest of the seven keys, Garden Key, is where the fort was built.  Construction was started in 1846.  It took over thirty years to build and ultimately, due to the composition of the land beneath, was left unfinished when the third level of battlements ended up being too heavy for the ground supporting it.  There were over 16 million bricks used in its construction!

Fort Jefferson in its heyday supported a full contingent of military personnel.  This is a picture taken of the Fort from the top of the battlements, looking across the parade grounds to the other battlements to give you some size of its scope.

Originally, there were cannons placed in many of the openings under the archways.  The field inside of the fort, now covered with grass and trees, served as the parade ground, and included barracks for the men as well. 

At the beginning of the Civil War, in 1861, the United States Government decided to use Fort Jefferson as a federal prison.  Probably the most famous inmate at the fort was Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg after Booth assassinated Lincoln.


 Sentenced to life imprisonment, Dr. Mudd was pardoned in 1869 by President Johnson, for his work at the Fort during an outbreak of yellow fever which killed many inmates as well as the prison doctor. 

The Army left Fort Jefferson in 1874, and in 1908 the area became a wildlife refuge to protect the eggs of nesting birds from collectors.  Then, in 1935, Fort Jefferson was named a national monument, and finally, in 1992, Fort Jefferson, Garden Key and the six surrounding keys as well as the surrounding waters were named the Dry Tortugas National Park. 

Now, the only people living at the fort are people from the National Park Service.  You have to request duty at the Dry Tortugas, and there is a rotation schedule that allows people to rotate in and out.  They get their water from a cistern below the fort built by the army to collect rain water. 

There are only two ways to get to Fort Jefferson:  by boat or by plane.  We took the Yankee II Ferry.  The trip is an all day excursion; we left Key West promptly at 8 and returned around 5 or 5:30.  It is a four hour round trip, so you end up with roughly five hours on the island.  The Ferry provided us both breakfast and lunch.  Ferry personnel also gave guided tours of the Fort, which we enjoyed very much. 

Although I am not a great lover of heights, there was enough land at the top of the battlements that I was able to overcome my fear to take a good look out, and I was glad that I did! 

Here is a picture of Mark from the top of the wall, with the sea behind him:


Here is another picture from the top of the wall:

One of the best things about the day trip to Fort Jefferson is that not only do you tour the historic fort but also there is a small beach to the left of the entrance of the fort that leads to you an area where you can snorkel around the fort.  On our way over to the beach, we saw this pelican, which had landed on the pier:

I have an inordinate fondness for pelicans, so whenever I see one that is close enough, I pretty much have to take a picture of it. 

Mark snorkeled for a good long time, and tried out the disposable underwater camera we bought specifically for this excursion.  Here are a few of the pictures he got:

This was the first time we had every tried an underwater camera.  Next time, we might go ahead and buy a digital one that works underwater.   

I went snorkeling with Mark about the last hour of the trip.  By that time, we were out of film, but he had discovered that the more colorful and diverse sea life was up where the sea met the wall of the fort, so we explored that area for a while. 

The keys surrounding Fort Jefferson are also interesting in their own right, as the only nesting places in the Northern Hemisphere for certain types of birds, including the magnificent frigate bird – yes, “magnificent” is part of the name, and yes, it is truly deserved – and many sooty terns.  You could see the rookery of the frigate birds in the distance, but the sooty tern rookery was on Bush Key, which is less than a stone’s throw from Garden Key, and the swarm of terms surrounding the key was phenomenal. 

The Magnificent Frigate Bird


The Sooty Tern

We returned on the Ferry to Key West relaxed, refreshed and thoroughly sunburned.  (Note to self:  Sunburns happen even on cloudy days!).  I can’t wait to do it all over again with Kayla some day!

Have a great day everyone!


P.S.  I had a lot of trouble with photographs for some reason today, so I wish to note here that I found the map of the Dry Tortugas on the website of the Library of the University of Texas, the photographs of Dr. Mudd on the Famous Trials Page, Lincoln Conspiracy, from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School web site, and the photographs of the two birds on Wikipedia in the public domain.  They were taken by two employees of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

2 responses to “Fort Jefferson

  1. I like reading your blog. Also, I had problems with pictures today as well. I am very glad you posted about it because now I don’t think it’s something I did. You are a good writer.

    • Thank you! I am glad you like reading my blog.

      What were your pictures doing? Every time I tried to put one in today, it kept jumping up to the top of the page, and I had a lot of trouble keeping captions on them too. It was very frustrating and I had to fight a little to keep from saying something I shouldn’t!

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